Russell Gold, The Wall Street Journal’s pre-eminent energy reporter, has a new book about Houston wind energy pioneer Michael Skelly and his efforts to modernize the power grid. I reviewed Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy, on the Texas Monthly website:
Electricity has become commonplace because of billions of dollars invested in expanding power grids for more than a century. But for all that investment, the grid structure hasn’t changed much since my grandfather’s days. Large, centralized power plants generate electricity and send it across transmission lines to cities and towns served by a particular regional grid. That’s great, as far as it goes, but the system remains fragmented. If Texas runs short of power, it can’t simply order extra electricity from, say Kansas, because there’s no interconnection.
For years, monopoly utilities protected this setup. After all, they were guaranteed a steady rate of return by state regulators. Power flowed in only one direction—from generating plants outward. Accepting power directly into the grid from renewable sources like wind turbines and solar panels, they argued, would cause voltage to collapse and trigger blackouts—access to the wind and sun fluctuates too greatly. The only way to steadily keep the lights on was for utilities to control the flow of power from their own plants.
Michael Skelly wasn’t buying it. By 2009, he’d already built a successful wind farm operator, Houston-based Horizon Wind, and had decided to take on a new challenge: integrating wind and solar power into the nation’s grids.
Skelly is the focus of a new book, Superpower: One Man’s Quest to Transform American Energy by Wall Street Journal reporter (and Austinite) Russell Gold. As an energy writer in Houston, I encountered Skelly regularly—we sat together on panels, I interviewed him, and he even helped me track down sources for Texas Monthly articles. He’s a captivating guy, and he can be both intense and affable, but the prospect of an entire book about him gave me pause. Outside of Houston and energy-nerd circles, does anyone know Skelly? Is he really book-worthy?
Fortunately, in the capable storytelling hands of Gold, that issue is moot. Superpower is an engaging read. Skelly’s life provides the narrative thread, but the book is really a warning: Our electric grid has failed to keep up with the changes in generation sources and consumer habits. Want more wind and solar power? Great, but how do you get electricity from wind turbines in western Oklahoma to populated areas that actually need the power? Skelly’s plan was to build what Gold describes as a giant extension cord—a massive direct-current power line—that would ship electricity generated by wind farms in the Oklahoma Panhandle to the eastern power grid through a connection in Memphis.
Right away, Gold makes it clear that Skelly is more hard-charging capitalist than crunchy-granola renewables enthusiast: “Skelly wanted to make a profit, because profits would attract new investors and money into renewable energy.”
Skelly formed a new company, Clean Line Energy Partners, raised millions from private investors, and developed a plan that would bring thousands of megawatts—enough energy to power thousands of homes—into the existing grids. The result would be cheaper, cleaner energy. He also hoped to prove that utilities’ fears that wind and solar power would destabilize the grid were unfounded. He took on ignorant politicians (I’m looking at you, Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander), self-serving utilities, short-sighted bureaucrats, and NIMBY-minded landowners, who all have done their parts to ensure our national power grid remains a balkanized anachronism.
Read my full eview on the Texas Monthly website.